The two-decade bicycle helmet law experiment is drawing to a close as Seattle, the largest remaining city in the United States with such a law, no longer requires them. The King County Board of Health voted Thursday to repeal its all-ages helmet law after months of debate, a decision that also covers Seattle. The law change went into effect immediately.
The Board made it very clear in their deliberations and in a companion resolution that they still strongly recommend the use of bicycle helmets. But they no longer consider police enforcement the best way to promote their use because of the dangers associated with biased policing.
There were times when it seemed so politically impossible to repeal King County’s rare all-ages bicycle helmet law that it didn’t seem worth trying. But times have changed both within local politics and within global bicycling culture, both of which have pretty big implications for the future of safe streets and beyond.
Bicycle helmet laws were a well-intentioned detour
Let’s rewind to 1993. I-90 finally opened in Seattle, and the region’s decades-long binge of new and wider freeways had led to a seemingly never-ending expansion of sprawling suburbs far away from the city center. People biked a lot in Seattle, at least compared to most other cities in the United States, thanks in large part to the wild success of the Burke-Gilman Trail, the poster child of the Rails-to-Trails movement. But beyond trails, there was practically no momentum to significantly redesign city streets to make them safer for cycling. There was also almost no funding for such an effort. Yet people were getting seriously injured or killed while biking, and people wanted to take action to prevent these tragedies. This was how the bicycle helmet law took hold.
In 1986, an estimated 1% of children wore bicycle helmets in King County, according to the Children’s Bicycle Helmet Coalition (“CBHC”) in a March 1993 Seattle Times story (Seattle Public Library account required to access). But bicycle helmets became more widely available and public information efforts from Cascade Bicycle Club, the Washington Bicycle Federation and the CBHC changed that. By 1993, when King County enacted its helmet law, bicycle helmet use was up to 40% for children and over 50% for adults, according to Cascade. The King County law was supposed to precede a statewide law, but the statewide bill failed to pass.
The early 1990s was also when major bicycle racing organizations started to require helmets for athletes, so the next logical question was whether people riding on city streets should be required to wear them, too. Since the head is the most vulnerable part of the body, it seemed like a good way to prevent death and serious brain injury. This is why Cascade and WA Bike Fed were proponents of the law at the time, and why the law was passed by the Board of Health rather than by the Seattle or King County councils at large. It was a public health effort. (The law initially did not affect Seattle, which had its own Public Health Department. The law expanded to include Seattle when the two public health boards merged in 2003.)
But why single out people on bikes? Yes, head injuries were the leading cause of death for people biking, but the same could be said for people fatally injured inside of cars or walking across the street. Yet there was seemingly no effort at all to mandate that people wear helmets while inside motor vehicles or using crosswalks. While people can easily understand the difference between driving a race car and driving to the grocery store, all bicycling was essentially treated as a sporting activity. If it’s a sport, then wearing a bicycle helmet seemed as logical as wearing a football helmet.
Since passing the law, helmet use has grown to as high as 87% according to a 2018 count in Seattle (count locations were mostly in north Seattle, so they may not be representative of the whole County). It is impossible to know how much of the increase was due to the law and how much was due to general public acceptance of helmets, but surely such actions from the King County Board of Public Health and other health boards and governments across the world carried weight and influenced helmet adoption.
The message was perhaps too successful, though, with an oversized amount of bicycle safety work going toward increasing helmet use. It’s a very politically convenient message as well because it puts the onus for safety on individuals riding bikes rather than, say, the transportation department or elected leaders voting on the annual budget. The problem with such a reliance on this one safety measure is that a helmet is not a magic force field, it is a foam hat. If a person is in a serious collision with a motor vehicle, there are so many physical vulnerabilities that a helmet can’t protect. A helmet is a desperate, last-ditch effort to hold onto life in the midst of a deadly collision. That’s a good enough reason for most people in Seattle to go ahead and wear one, but it’s unhelpful to view them as a panacea for bike safety.
Despite the increase in helmet use, Seattle bike safety still falls far behind cities with far more cycling and very little helmet use. The reason for this disparity is obvious: The safest places for cycling have designed their streets to prevent collisions from happening in the first place. I wish bicycle safety were as simple as getting people to wear helmets, but that’s not how it works. Vision Zero is a more serious public health policy because it puts responsibility on governments to proactively change the systems and infrastructure they control to protect the health and safety of all people using it. That’s a lot more work than promoting helmets, but it also promises to be more effective.
This is why bicycle safety organizations have largely shifted to focusing on safe transportation systems as public policy rather than focusing on helmet use. Cascade Bicycle Club locally and the League of American Bicyclists nationally support the use of helmets when bicycling, but oppose helmet laws. Cascade will continue to require helmets for people participating in Cascade events and programs despite the law change, for example. But the organization that was once a proponent of the King County helmet law helped lead the effort to repeal it, a clear sign that there has been a major shift in bicycle advocacy over the past couple decades. There are now no large cities in the United States with an all-ages helmet law on the books (Spokane is now the biggest city in Washington with such a law). This could put pressure on Vancouver and British Columbia to reconsider their helmet law as that city now stands out as a large city with such a law still on the books.
King County leaders reconsider laws that are causing more harm than good
Treating bicycling as a sport rather than an everyday activity created problems that the original promoters of the law almost certainly did not consider. No matter the intention of the law, it put discretion for enforcement in the hands of police officers, and the result was depressingly predictable. About half of helmet tickets went to people experiencing homelessness, according to a report by the Helmet Law Working Group (which included members from Central Seattle Greenways, Cascade, Real Change and a few other organizations). A Black person riding a bike was 3.8 times more likely to get a helmet ticket than a white person. Indigenous people were 2.2 times more likely to get a ticket and Hispanic/Latino people were 1.4 times more likely.
The repeal of this helmet law could be a sign of a larger shift in the prevailing politics of the region, with leaders more interested in the actual effects of laws rather than the intentions. Nobody wants people to get head injuries, but it is also harmful to have laws on the books that police can so easily use as a pretense to make contact with someone. Officers are supposed to have cause to detain someone, and riding a bike without a helmet is such an easy one to cite. One tool elected officials have for reducing biased police stops is to take away tools that officers can easily use as a legal pretense for making such stops, especially when those laws have a questionable effectiveness.
The lowest-hanging fruit for elected officials are police-enforced laws against actions that have no victims other than the offender. Wearing a helmet does not have any impact on the safety of other road users. But police stops can too easily escalate either into police violence or trap people in the court system. A stop that begins as a supposed helmet violation could lead police to find other violations.
It was this point that earned King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay the New York Times Quotation of the Day: “The question before us was whether a helmet law that’s enforced by police on balance produces results that outweigh the harm that that law creates.”
It was not politically easy for the members of the Board of Health to make this decision. They ran the very real risk of being branded as anti-safety or in favor of head injuries. This is why well-intentioned laws like this one can be so difficult to repeal. But the political winds have shifted in recent years as protests against racist policing have put intense focus on the laws police use to make stops. The question is no longer, “Is this law here for a good reason?” The question now is, “Does this law do more harm than good?”
Perhaps the helmet law repeal is just the beginning of a larger trend. Sticking with transportation, elected officials could look at all kinds of traffic stops and ask the same question. Is this law causing more harm than it prevents? Are there better ways to enforce them than police stops? Jaywalking is a big one. There are also various vehicle codes like driving with a cracked windshield or expired tabs. And, of course, there are many such laws beyond transportation that could use similar reconsideration.
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